Civilians Organize to Resist Russian Occupation in Ukraine

By Brian Dooley 

KYIV, Ukraine — Just after the Second World War, French Resistance fighter Agnes Humbert published an account of how she had survived Nazi occupation and imprisonment.

It’s an astounding story of everyday life and heroism, of how in the weeks after the invasion of Paris, she quietly found others prepared to resist the German army and began to organize (“We discuss our future activities. Idle chitchat is banned, once and for all.”)

Across the world, there is a long and astonishing tradition of civilian resistance to occupying military forces, including those living under the Roman Empire in what is now Algeria, the Irish invention of the “boycott” technique against British colonialism in 1880, the women’s rebellion in Nigeria 50 years later, and many others. A new chapter is being added to that history in Ukraine today. 

Much of the country has been under Russian military occupation since 2014, with even more territory invaded last year. There is immense danger. This week Human Rights First’s president and CEO  Mike Breen and I have been visiting areas in northeastern Ukraine that were, until recently, under Russian occupation. We’ve seen the horrific aftermath in villages near Kharkiv where hospitals, schools, and homes have been destroyed. Locals showed us the basement of a school they said had been used as a torture chamber.

Throughout the occupation, many in Ukraine have resisted with the help of official guidance, which advises that “simple, and most importantly, safe actions, multiplied by thousands of citizens who carry them out, turn into a powerful weapon and a tangible obstacle to the work of the occupiers.” The tips remind civilians that “it is possible to help end the occupation without violence through organized and systematic resistance of the enemy,” and give advice on how to behave, including:

  • Do not cooperate with the occupying forces: do not share information with them or participate in public gatherings or events organized by the occupier.

  • Do not allow yourself to be used as additional labor in constructing defense facilities, etc.

  • Do not let yourself be provoked by violence.

  • Record violations of human rights and constitutional values. But do it only if it is safe! Secretly record violations and share evidence with the Ukrainian and international community.

  • Help victims of violence.

Crimea is one of those regions of Ukraine that has been under constant occupation by Russian forces for nine years.

Alim Aliev is a prominent Crimean activist, co-founder of the NGO Crimea SOS, and deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute, a cultural organization. He told me of a growing resistance to Russian occupation in Crimea. 

In a speech at the United Nations in New York in February this year, he reported that “in 2022 alone, the occupation courts of Crimea opened 247 proceedings regarding bringing Crimean residents to administrative and criminal liability for the so-called discrediting of the Russian armed forces. This is about anti-war slogans and actions: public statements ‘Stop the war’ and condemnation of Russian aggression and war crimes, the performance of Ukrainian songs, the demonstration of the Ukrainian flag.”

These acts of resistance are highly risky. Aliev described how in May 2022 the Crimean artist Bohdan Ziza, doused the building of the occupation administration in the Crimean city of Yevpatoria with yellow and blue paint: “He was first kidnapped by Russian security forces, he was tortured, and today he is accused of terrorism.”

Life under occupation is dangerous and hard. Some Ukrainian men, including those in Crimea, are forced to join the Russian military and sent into combat against Ukrainian soldiers. 

The advice for those who have been unable to avoid conscription by the Russian army is clear: “As soon as you enter the territory controlled by Ukraine, surrender at the first opportunity and report that you are a citizen of Ukraine from the occupied territory.” In reality, the practicalities of surrendering can be difficult and dangerous, especially if a soldier has to walk long distances across the open ground between the front lines.

But it’s been done – another way to defy Russia’s invasion. Ukraine’s official general advice to those living under occupation is that “even if your city or village is in the occupied territory, every citizen can contribute to the resistance – both as a part of the underground partisan forces and as an auxiliary component.” 



  • Brian Dooley

Published on March 29, 2023


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